Dr. Roger W. Maslin
Sometime ago I heard of a preacher that described the reality of hell as a place “where you would fry like a sausage for all eternity.” I think the statement presumes that the resurrection body will be like the one we now have. And I think the preacher can only think in terms of the literal. But to answer the question of our subject we have to ask another question: Is it necessary to treat every description of hell literally? There are several observations I would like to make in answer to this question.
1. The only person who would know is someone who has been on the other side of the grave and come to this world with a message. That is our Lord and Saviour. Jesus used “gehenna” to describe the place of eternal punishment, which was the city dump south of Jerusalem always continually burning with refuse. It was a place so full of offensiveness and hopelessness that it was a fitting symbol of the final place for all who have rejected Christ, even though it was a place prepared for the devil and his angels. Fire is frequently mentioned in connection with the message of eternal punishment.
2. Is the fire literal or a figure? One fellow minister in pondering this question could only answer: “I hope so.” Before you become alarmed by that answer let me remind you that the figure is always somewhat less than the truth it vehicles. So if it is not fire it is something worse. Hell is far worse than any figure of speech, just as Christ is more than bread in a baker’s shop, and more than a vine in the vineyard. So to accept fire as the ultimate description ignores other statements about hell such as a place of “outer darkness;” a place “ where their worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:43-48).. Here the figure fire is associated with other figures where they are contradictory in understanding the things of earth. A “lake of fire” or “furnace of fire” could not produce great darkness.(cf Matt.8:12;13:42,50;22:13; 25:30) “Weeping and gnashing of teeth” are also characteristic of this place, and they portray symbolically great remorse. The things of eternity cannot adequately be expressed or fully understood with earthly, temporal experiences.
3. In Billy Graham’s book, A Biblical Standard for Evangelists, an interesting and relevant observation is made on this subject: “Jesus used three words to describe hell. The first is ‘darkness.’ The Scripture teaches that God is light (I John 1:5). Hell will be the opposite. Those who have rejected Christ will go into outer darkness (Matthew 8:12). The second word He used to describe hell is ‘death.’ God is life. Man is separated from the life of God and endures eternal or the second death. The third word that He used is ‘fire.’ Jesus used this symbol over and over. This could be literal fire, as many believe. Or it could be symbolic. God does have fires that do not burn. And also there is the figurative use of fire in the Bible. For example, in the epistle of James we read that the tongue ‘is set on fire of hell’ (James 3:6). That doesn’t mean that the tongue has literal combustion. I’ve often thought that this fire could possibly be a burning thirst for God that is never quenched. What a terrible fire that would be – never to find satisfaction, joy, or fulfillment!”
4. To say that “fire” is not literal, but symbolic, is not to say there is no such place as hell. Hell is a real place. It is a place of separation from God forever. That is worse than a ship lost at sea without a compass; more than a child lost in a trackless wilderness or pathless forest. It is a place without Jesus and that is enough to make it a hell. We know the misery and heartache that comes by leaving Him out of our lives. It will be a hell for the lost, just to remember that they have missed the grand show of what God is doing with His saints throughout the endless ages.
5. It is a place of vile companions and despairing, disagreeable folk. There will be no fellowship there; no friendship; no song; no singing; only remorseful memories. Abraham counseled the rich man to “remember.” In life he had wasted his opportunities. Now biting, bitter remorse burns within him. He remembered his five brothers and begged that they not come to that place. Our Lord describes the residents of hell as “fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and idolaters, and all liars’ (Rev.21:8). A word of clarification from another passage needs to be made here. In I Cor.6:9-11 Paul mentions those who will not enter the kingdom of God: “fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, thieves, drunkards, extortioners” and others. Redemption, conversion, repentance, regeneration and faith make a difference. “And such were some of you; but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God,”
6. Hell is a place made necessary by sin and rebellion. First it was the devil and his angels. After the fall in the garden of Eden it encompasses all who will not repent and believe. The doctrine of hell is no imaginary child of darkness and superstition. All around us are the most revolting, disgusting cesspools of sin. My sense of justice tells me if there is no hell, there ought to be one. Justice makes the doctrine of hell a necessity. The one who claims hell is unjust would not want all of the criminals turned loose on society. Every nation has its laws and its prisons. Every city has its garbage dump separating the good and useful from the spoiled, the waste, and the useless. A hell of some sort is feared almost universally by man. Even the pagan has his notion of punishment to be endured in the world beyond because of his sins. If there is no hell, then the powerful preachers of the ages have preached a colossal hoax. If there is no hell then Christ’s death on Calvary is the highest price ever paid for folly. But with the message of judgment there is also the message of grace: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).